HCN: Tompkins, someone to resolve Cobell
"Homer Lee Wilkes. Ignacia Moreno. Hilary Tompkins.

Each is a member of a racial or ethnic minority. Each has been nominated by Barack Obama -- the first black president -- to a high position with power over environmental issues in the West. And each has faced skepticism from environmentalists.

As for Tompkins, on June 17 the Senate confirmed her as the Interior Department's top lawyer. That agency oversees other federal land, including national parks and Indian reservations, and sets policies on endangered species, grazing and mining. Tompkins is a New Mexico-born Navajo who was adopted by a Quaker family and raised in New Jersey. She returned to the West for a Stanford law degree and worked on the Navajo Reservation and in private practice representing tribes. For the last six years she was a lawyer for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's administration.

Many environmentalists hoped the Interior job would go to a heavy-hitter from their ranks. Their candidates included white men such as John Leshy, who held the job under Clinton, and Todd True, an Earthjustice litigator in Seattle. "The Obama administration is using environmental appointments to meet affirmative-action goals," a veteran environmentalist lawyer told High Country News.

Some perspective, though: Obama's array of appointees mirrors the percentages of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in our society. More than anything, these three controversial appointments highlight the environmental movement's chronic failure to recruit minorities into its top echelon.

And pigeonholing people because of portions of their resumes is often unfair. Tompkins, for instance, also handled environmental cases during a stint in Clinton's Justice Department (in a prestigious honors program for recent law school grads).

Tompkins also looks promising in a respect that's often ignored. She could help resolve a bitter 13-year-old class-action lawsuit. Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a member of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, represents 500,000 Native American landowners, who claim that Interior cheated them and their ancestors on more than 100 years of royalties for oil, timber and grazing leases. Interior's records are such a shambles that it's anybody's guess. A judge last year suggested a $455 million settlement -- an insult considering that the plaintiffs claim they're owed $47 billion. But Cobell says she'd like to negotiate a reasonable compromise. Tompkins, the first Native American serving as Interior's solicitor, seems perfectly qualified to do that."

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Affirmative actions (High Country News 8/10)